First published in First City, New Delhi, July 2007.
Typically, Indians are considered a fatalistic people. We believe in karma, that life is pre-determined. And yet, we find the following story in the vana parva of the Mahabharata, narrated by the sage Markandeya to the Pandavas.
Once upon a time, there was a princess called Savitri, who was the only child of her father. She fell in love with Satyavan, a prince whose father had been driven out of his kingdom by his enemies, and so lived in abject poverty in the forest. Her father opposed this marriage not only because Satyavan was poor but also because he was destined to die within a year of marriage. Savitri followed her heart nevertheless. A year of happy married life followed. A year later, at the appointed hour, Yama, the god of death, hurled his noose and took Satyavan’s life out of his body. Savitri followed him. “Go back and cremate his body,” he advised her. She refused to do so and kept following Yama into the land of the dead. Exasperated, he offered her three boons so that she would go away, “Anything except the life of your husband.” Savitri first asked that her father-in-law regain his kingship. Then she asked her father get a son and heir. And finally she asked that she be the mother of Satyavan’s sons. “So be it,” said Yama and continued on his journey to the land of the dead. After some time he noticed that Savitri was still following him. “You gave me your word that you would return to the land of the living,” he said. “You give me no choice. You said I would be the mother of Satyavan’s children. How can a dead body make me a mother? I must therefore follow Satyavan’s soul into the land of the dead.” Yama realized he had been outwitted. As custodian of the laws of karma, his boons had to be realized. The only way for Savitri to bear Satyavan’s children was to make Satyavan’s alive again. And so it happened.
Traditionally, women are told to read the story of Savitri during the ritual known as Vata-Savitri. At the same time, the women are told to go around the Banyan tree seven times. The Banyan tree is the tree under which Satyavan is supposed to have died. Conventionally, people believe that women are supposed to do this ritual for the long life of the husband. The Banyan tree represents long life and permanence making the ritual a sympathetic ritual, where we act out our desire. By going around the symbol of permanence and reading the tale of the woman who brought her dead husband back to life, people believe women can protect themselves from widowhood, which is traditionally considered to be the worst fate for a woman in a patriarchal society.
Now, in a fatalistic society, such a ritual should not exist. Whatever will happen will happen so why pray and perform rituals. Clearly, it means people believe it is possible to change fate by intense will and by the grace of God.
This is even more evident in the story itself. Here is a woman who walks into what seems like a terrible fate and she single handedly changes her fate. She even does the impossible, brings her husband back to life. How does she do it? First, she has the desire, then the will power, then the effort and finally the intelligence. Thus, the scriptures say that it is possible to overturn what is written in destiny by the grit of our will.
Long ago, Yagnavalkya, the greatest sage of the Upanishadic era, was asked, “Is the world governed by fate or free will?” He replied, “Both. They are like the two wheels on either side of the chariot. If you depend on one too much you go around in circles.”
In mythology, fate and freewill take the form of two gods that are never worshipped: Yama and Kama. Yama is the god of death, who keeps an account of one’s life and hence determines one’s destiny. He is dispassionate in his dealings and inflexible in his judgments. Kama, on the other hand, is the god of desire, who makes you want things, do things, hence makes you challenge and change destiny. He fills you with ambition and expectations, and hence is cause of both exhilaration as well as frustration. Yama binds man with his noose and uses his hook to ensure everyone repays his karmic debt. Kama strikes man with his arrow and leaves behind the sweet festering wound of hope and desire. Before Yama, one is helpless. With Kama, one is hopeful.
For centuries, Indians have refused to accept the fate laid out before us by Yama. That is why we have jyotish-shastra or astrology which provides us gemstones that can influence the future. That is why we have vastu-shastra or geomancy that promises to change our life if we change our dwelling. That is why we have rituals known as vrata where by fasting and keeping all-night vigils and walking barefoot to the temples one can change the fortune of the household.
To drive the notion of fate and free will in a fun way, ancient seers of India came up with many board games.
First was snakes and ladders. You throw the dice and move the coins accordingly on a checkered board. No one can control the throw of the dice, thus dice represents fate. If your fate is good, you will land on a box which has the base of a ladder. It will help you rise to a better place. This is fortune. If your fate is bad, you will land on a box which has the head of a snake. You will slip down. This is misfortune. This game teaches fatalism. There is nothing you can do but accept the throw of the dice and pray the next throw will be in your favor.
The second game is Pachisi which was something like the modern Ludo. Here there was a mixture of luck and skill. The throw of the dice depended on luck while the movement of the coins depended on the skill of the player. Another variant of this game was Ganjifa which evolved into the modern game of Playing Cards. The first throw of the cards depended on fate/luck while the way the cards were used in the course of the game depended on skill/free will.
Pachisi evolved into Chaturanga (which had four different types of coins, namely the horse, the chariot, the elephant, the foot soldier) which then traveled to Arabia and then Europe and became known as Chess. During this evolution and migration, the dice was abandoned. Now, chess is purely a game of skill. Of mathematics. Of free will.
In the Mahabharata, Yudhishtira had to accept the invitation to the game of dice because in Vedic Times the only way he or any other king could demonstrate that he has fate or the favor of the gods on his side was by winning a game of dice. The board game was a ritual game, a magical game, a game that showed the fine interaction of fate and freewill. A good king had to master it.
Even today, during Diwali, people play cards and gamble. The roots of this practice lies in ancient board games that were integral part of temple ceremonies. The idea was to teach devotees that Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, moves either towards the one who has fate on his side or towards the one skilled enough to attract her.
Duryodhan in the Mahabharata had fate on his side — that is why, though villain, he lived and died like a king. Yudhishtira had a bad fate. Only with the grace of God embodied in Krishna and by acquiring many skills and change in attitude during his exile in the forest and after a tough battle at Kurukshetra was he able to finally win. So, if you are like the Pandavas, not blessed with fate, do not despair. The scriptures say there is still hope. Work to acquire the right skill and the right attitude and seek a little bit of God’s grace and you can still win in this leela, the game called life.